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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Religiosity and Children’s Development in China

While many studies have focused on the positive effects of religious involvement on family outcomes, fewer have dug deeper to examine how exactly religion operates within the family, specifically in influencing positive family processes and child development. Researchers Jerf W.K. Yeung and Yuk-Chung Chan from City University of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, respectively, point out that this is especially true in non-Christian cultures like Hong Kong. In their new study, the authors seek to remedy this gap by investigating how parents’ Christian religious involvement “influences their psychological health, family functioning, and various developmental outcomes of their offspring in a Chinese sample of parent-child pairs.” 

The researchers begin by outlining previous research that stresses “parents’ childrearing behaviors, such as their parenting styles, and their children’s growth and adjustment as a function of family structure, neighborhood characteristics, and socioeconomic status.” “[H]owever,” they continue, “very limited investigations have emphasized the role of religiosity that may occasion these differences.” In other words, religion is part of a broader system of family functioning, which then bears upon parenting practices. 

Specifically, the researchers posit four different hypotheses related to how exactly religion may mediate family processes and the effect of that mediation on parenting and children. First, “Parents’ religious involvement may predict effective family functioning (including positive family processes and competence-promoting parenting) which in turn would be beneficial to the development of their children.” Second, “Competence-promoting parenting is a function of positive family processes.” Third, “One of the positive effects of parents’ religious involvement on effective family functioning is through its protective effect on reducing depressive symptoms in parents.” And four, “Higher levels of intrinsic religiosity [an individual’s private religiosity, as opposed to public religiosity such as church attendance] would predict more use of positive religious coping in parents.”

Using a sample of 223 parent-child pairs (“children” being between 14 and 21 years of age) who had been involved in a local Christian church for at least five years, the researchers constructed a model in which “parents’ religious involvement is a predictor of parental depressive symptoms and family functioning, and in turn family functioning is directly predictive of developmental outcomes in their children.” In addition, the researchers control for both family socioeconomic status and child age.

The results are not surprising for those familiar with the issue. Although not all hypotheses receive full support, for religious parents, “positive family processes and competence-promoting parenting practices are above average (means = 3.71 and 3.82 respectively).” Furthermore, children in religious families demonstrate positive future orientation and “no serious internalizing and externalizing problem symptoms.” In addition, religious parents are found to have more ability to cope when hardship strikes, as “intrinsic religiosity is substantially correlated with positive religious coping (r = .43,  p  < .01), and they are then significantly correlated with parental depressive symptoms negatively. . . ” This finding is important, because the researchers’ data also show that parental depressive symptoms are “significantly associated with poor family processes and parenting practices.”

In their discussion, the researchers again stress that theirs is the first study of its kind in a non-Christian culture, and conclude that “results of this study echo the findings of those carried out in the western context.  There are positive effects of religiosity on family socialization and child development in a non-Christian society like Hong Kong,” although these processes are associated with lesser and greater effects in various models. 

In the end, one thing is clear: families in China and the U.S. alike would do well to take their children to church.

(Jerf W.K. Yeung and Yuk-Chung Chan, “Parents’ Religious Involvement, Family Socialization, and Development of  Their Children in a Chinese Sample of Hong Kong,” Social Indicators Research 117 [2014]: 987-1010. DOI: 10.1007/s11205-013-0371-2)